Game of Thrones: A Spectacular Battle, With One Big Disappointment

Our roundtable on "The Watchers on the Wall," the ninth episode of the fourth season of the HBO show.


Spencer Kornhaber, Christopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

Orr: You know nothing, Jon Snow.

So last week, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss killed off Oberyn Martell who, as played by Pedro Pascal, was among the most exceptional supporting characters on the show. This week, they killed off Ygritte who, as played by Rose Leslie—well, you get the idea. Viewers who complain that the show delights in getting us attached to characters only to then brutally murder them will have plenty to complain about. And the season’s still not over…

That said, it could have been more heartbreaking—and, as a book reader, let me say it should have been more heartbreaking. But I’ll come back to that in a minute. Let me start instead with the obvious: This was bravura cinema-on-TV, a production on a scale that would have been unimaginable in the medium just a few years ago. Neil Marshall, who directed the “Blackwater” episode in season two, was brought back for this latest clash and, as he promised, it was an immense undertaking: giants, mammoths, flaming arrows, a massive ice axe scything its way down on a chain—from the perspective of sheer spectacle, “The Watchers on the Wall” had it all.

I also liked the opening scenes of the episode, with their peculiar love-is-a-many-splendored-thing vibe. Sam explains to Jon that a second-hand sense of Getting It On is the best he’s ever likely to get, and he also notes that his meticulous parsing of the Night’s Watch vows suggests that marriage and children are prohibited, but not sex per se. (Talk about your loopholes!) Then we get our first installment in forever of Tormund’s Tips for Better Sex, in which he offers up his—please let it be apocryphal—tale of ursine uxoriousness. (It’s certainly a novel twist on “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.”) Finally, we have Maester Aemon reading Sam as easily as he might once have any of the books in his under-utilized library, culminating with my favorite line of the episode: “Nothing makes the past a sweeter place to visit than the prospect of imminent death.”

I got a kick, too, out of the way Benioff and Weiss seemed to delight in toying with audience expectations. Perhaps it’s just me, but they seemed to drop hint after hint that Ygritte was going to kill Sam this episode. First Sam tells Gilly, “I promise you I won’t die tonight,” which felt like the Game of Thrones retirony equivalent of being the cop with a loving family who’s just a week shy of retirement from the force. Then we have Ygritte spotting Sam (“a fat one”) on the battlements of Castle Black during her first reconnaissance, followed by her putting an arrow through Pip’s head such that he dies in Sam’s arms. Again, it may just be me, but Benioff and Weiss seemed to be telegraphing all episode long that Sam was the Lovable Supporting who was about to join the ranks of the fallen. Which, of course, we book readers know can’t happen, because he’s got to be around to be eaten by the reanimated corpse of the Magnar of Thenn next episode. (Kidding!)

So why did I nonetheless come out of the episode somewhat disappointed? Again, in a word, Ygritte. Rose Leslie has been one of a handful of performers on the show who’ve really elevated their characters above what they were in the books. But Ygritte’s death, which was among the saddest moments in the George R. R. Martin novels, felt as though it got short shrift here. Like the calamitous outcome of Oberyn’s duel with the Mountain last week (but to a considerably greater degree) the scene felt rushed. Not only was Jon and Ygritte’s exchange shorter than in the book, but given the way it was tucked in amid the violent mayhem—it didn’t even merit the oomph of being a final-scene kicker—it seemed almost an afterthought.

Moreover, the power of the moment was undermined by the fact that Ygritte’s death takes place in the show much later than it did in the novels. (Folks who aren’t interested in how the two differ may just want to skip the rest of this paragraph.) In the book, the skirmish between the Wildling raiding party and the Crows at Castle Black—and with it, Ygritte’s death—comes long before the arrival of Mance’s army north of the Wall. In show-time, I had expected Ygritte’s final “you know nothing” to occur around episode four or five. Instead, Ygritte basically vanished from episodes four through seven, giving us altogether too much time to forget how terrific she was. And when she finally came back, her defining feature (also in a departure from the books) was her extreme murderousness, which somewhat undercuts the tragedy of her ultimate demise. Again, I know there’s nothing more tedious than the second-guessings of a book fan, but Ygritte deserved a better, sadder death, and it would have been an easy thing to give her one.

In all, I thought it was a slightly odd episode in general, one that provided unusual pleasures—Mag the Mighty, for instance, the giant who single-handedly broaches the gate—but was largely missing the primary elements that make the show such a consistent joy: the cunning dialogue, the unexpected plot swerves, etc. Indeed, apart from Ygritte’s death, almost nothing of genuine import happened tonight. Mance’s preliminary testing of the Wall’s defenses has been repelled, but he still has an overwhelming force of men and monsters preparing for their next assault. And given this episode’s singular focus, who knows what may have been going on in the rest of Westeros (and Essos) in the meantime—poisonings? betrayals? copious amounts of gratuitous nudity? I’ll only say this: unless I’m sorely mistaken, next week’s finale—in previous seasons the time when Benioff and Weiss have reset the board after a shocking episode nine—should be chock full of game-changers.

What did you think, Amy? Did the battle of the Wall leave you blown away, or nostalgic for the plots and counter-plots of King’s Landing? Or both?

Sullivan: Both. On first viewing, I loved the episode and the way it captured this terrifying battle-on-two-fronts. Ser Alliser Thorne finally stops being an ass, admits Jon Snow was right about sealing the tunnel while they had the chance, and then mostly redeems himself by giving the boy rangers a shot of courage before they confront the invading wildings in hand-to-hand combat. (Thorne seemed pretty darn skillful with the sword himself in his duel with Tormund Giantsbane.) Jon Snow is in charge and kicking ass, both atop the Wall and again down below while finishing off the remaining invaders. Six brave brothers make me tear up chanting their vows while facing off against a seriously scary giant—and then give their lives while defending the gate. Sam finally gets a kiss from Gilly. Ghost!

As you say, Chris, the production was flat-out amazing. Admittedly, I don’t get out to the movies anymore. But this episode was as cinematically impressive as anything I’ve seen in a theater. Okay, so if you counted up the number of brothers who fell victim to the wildings on both sides, it might well exceed the 102 we know to be on hand at Castle Black at the beginning of the battle. And with everyone wearing black, it honestly got a little hard to distinguish between the wildings and the Night’s Watch, aside from the big bad baldies.

But as a cinematic spectacle that had me riveted for all of the 50 minutes, even though I knew how it was going to end, the episode was fantastic. I got chills watching Mag the Mighty leading the Wilding army toward the wall, as well as when he speared one of the Night’s Watch 700 feet above him. Yikes.

Once the credits ran, however—and especially after watching the previews for next week’s season finale—I was less satisfied. You addressed the way this season’s timing took some of the power away from Ygritte’s death, Chris. Even the episode handled her oddly—after the show reminded us last week that Ygritte does have a heart when she spared Gilly and then had her threaten Magnar at the start tonight if he failed to leave Jon to her, I half-expected Ygritte to take out the Thenn when he and Jon started brawling.

More troubling to this book reader was the fact that culpability for Ygritte’s death was shifted from a spray of Night’s Watch arrows—one of which could have come from Jon Snow’s bow—to the boy Ollie, a creation of the televised series. That perhaps makes the tale of Ygritte’s death more straight-forward, but with much-altered consequences for how it affects Jon.

I also agree, Chris, that the shot of Jon cradling Ygritte was crying out to be the final image of this episode. Sure, Jon still had to order Tormund taken prisoner and interrogated, but the battle was basically over. The only reason to add another beat to the episode would be to use Jon’s decision to head out alone beyond the Wall as a way to set up his storyline for the next season. But then the previews reveal that he’ll be in next week’s finale as well. Bad choice there. Also, bad choice, Jon Snow. You’re going north of the Wall WITHOUT GHOST? What good is it to have a direwolf if you leave him at home?

Ultimately, though, I think my beef isn’t with this episode itself as with the way the show has allowed us to forget why the wildings are so keen on attacking Castle Black in the first place. (It’s possible this is intentional, as a way of reminding us that the Night’s Watch has forgotten the real threat as well. But I’m wary that this kind of meta-analysis tends to give show runners more credit than is deserved.) Once the episode ended, I snapped out of my Game of Thrones stupor and wondered: Wait—remind me again why the wildings are attacking Castle Black?

Remember that this 500-mile, 700-foot-high wall was built 8,000 years ago not because the people of Westeros needed to keep out the wildings. It was to protect the kingdom from the White Walkers. And it’s the return of those same White Walkers that has the wildings running for their lives and willing to do whatever it takes to get on the other side of the Wall. Since we’ve mostly seen them marauding and killing innocent civilians willy-nilly this season, it’s easy to forget that the wildings aren’t actually the enemy here. Sure, 100,000 of them loosed on the North would not be pretty. But as Roose Bolton pointed out last week, the North is a pretty big place. And who wouldn’t want to see what a giant or a Thenn could do to Ramsay the Sociopath?

If next week does include a good scene or two of Jon sitting down with Mance Rayder, that may be all it takes to put the situation north of the Wall back in perspective. But for now, I’m just reminded that once again, you know nothing, Jon Snow.

Kornhaber: True, it’s important to remember axe-wielding fur wearers bearing down on the rest of the continent are actually refugees. But Ygritte’s campfire comments helped remind of the score here: “They came up here, into our land, and put up a big wall and said it was theirs.” Why shouldn’t the Free Folk be able to live somewhere warmer and with fewer White Walkers? Maybe when Jon faces Mance Rayder again, they’ll both realize that what Westeros really needs is common-sense immigration reform.

As for the big battle: I’d argue that it was better than it had any right to be, really. Many of the post-Peter Jackson, FX-driven, mythical army clashes that populate blockbusters these days fall into a few traps: They can be repetitive, they can be confusing, they can be generic, and they can be pointless. “Blackwater” avoided those traps by peppering the action with delightful scenes of Cersei gulping wine and Tyrion delivering battlefield realtalk. But the characters up north just aren’t as exciting: Jon Snow is the one Thrones hero without a personality; Sam is sort of compelling, but in a pitiable way; I can’t really keep the names of any of the other crows straight.

Yet Benioff, Weiss, and Marshall overcame the challenge of setting an entire episode at the wall—with style. Was the battle repetitive? Nope, the variegated venues of top o’ the wall, Castle Black, and the gate meant we were never in one place for too long. Was it confusing? Nope, I was able to follow all the action pretty easily. Was it generic? Well, it certainly presented us with a few images we’ve seen before—flaming arrows, barbarians slitting throats, commanders fleeing their post. But there were also elements that felt fresh.

For example: The unique setting of an enormous ice wall was used to excellent effect, what with all the dramatic dropping of objects from on high, including that incredible swinging chain thingy. And while giants riding mammoths may not qualify as a new and original fantasy-battle innovation, how often do we get to see those giants fire ballista bolts skyward? How often do we get to see those mammoths make like a Chevy truck commercial and demonstrate their towing power?

As for the question of pointlessness: I don’t disagree with you, Chris, that the outcome of the battle feels surprisingly inconsequential. And I’m a bit confused as to why Mance would send his south-of-the-Wall raiding party in now if his north-of-the-Wall forces were merely testing the Crows’ defenses. Better to wait till you know those defenses than to put your elite squad on a suicide mission, right?

But on the other hand, for a fight this epic to turn out to be merely the prelude to a longer, bloodier, and seemingly inevitable war certainly fits with Thrones’ worldview. The battle also offered an opportunity to explore the question of what makes an effective leader. Alliser Thorne’s always been insufferable on account of his arrogance, but here we saw that the flip side of his arrogance is the confidence it takes to lead. Prince Oberyn very recently reminded us that proclaiming you’ll survive something on Thrones usually means you're about to die (yes, Chris, minority-cop style), but the odds were so stacked against the Crows that it came as a genuine relief—to viewers and to soldiers—when their commander expressed some optimism.

The fact that I haven’t yet talked about Ygritte’s death may support your belief that it didn’t hurt as much as it should have, Amy and Chris. I do think Benioff and Weiss tried to give her an appropriate sendoff, opening the episode with Jon reminiscing about her, and then later cutting the music and letting the camera linger as she died in his arms. But yes, all the other action going on did make her demise feel less significant than you might have wanted. Rose Leslie really was one of the best members of the cast, and yet even she couldn’t compete with the biggest fire the north has ever seen.